A national fighter for local issues

The head of the new body responsible for local government must unite warring factions and influence Downing Street, reports Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
Brian Briscoe is about to become one of local government's most important of its select band of VIPs. He is chief executive of the Local Government Association which, on 1 April, becomes the representative body of almost all local authorities in England and Wales, bringing together the metropolitan, county, district and new unitary authorities for the first time.

Mr Briscoe will have no easy task. In recent years the voices of the various tiers of local government have often been discordant, and they were split by the recent battle over reorganisation. Further conflict is inevitable if a new government changes the system of grant distribution, favouring some councils at the expense of others.

The appointment of Brian Briscoe surprised many, as it passed over one of the existing heads of the council associations, choosing instead a serving local authority chief executive. Prior to joining the LGA a year ago to set it up, Mr Briscoe ran Hertfordshire County Council. He believes that his recent council experience will help him at the LGA. "At least I am fairly recently experienced in what it is like to run a large council in the prevailing conditions," he says.

His experience as a planner is also beneficial, Mr Briscoe believes, as planners are people who have to negotiate, not impose solutions. He concedes that this may be taken as a metaphor for local government's role today: less a provider of services, more a enabler on behalf of the local community.

But despite the difficulties in recent years, these are exciting times for local government, with a growing consensus in favour of allowing councils to get on with their own job, argues Mr Briscoe. "There is a thawing in central and local relations, but there is a prospect of that improving more, and some of the experiences we have been through in the last 20 years in local government have not been to the benefit of local government or local communities."

Divisions between councils have assisted central government in taking away their powers. "Local government has punched below its weight", says Mr Briscoe.

There remain two major areas of dispute for local government, even if Labour wins the election: the questions of resources and of structure. The Labour Party has made clear that it would give no easy ride to local authorities, and it intends to change the system of grant distribution, with the likely result of more money going to the north and less to the south.

"I do think we will be able to make an effective impact on the national scene, notwithstanding the fact that while our budgets are capped, and the resource level is too low to begin with, there is going to be real conflict around the way local government finance is distributed, north to south, metropolitans to counties, urban to rural," Mr Briscoe says. "We won't attempt to represent one factional interest against another."

The LGA wants the size of the pot going to councils to increase, and more local financial discretion to be restored to councils. Where councils once raised half their money through locally set domestic and business rates, now they are dependent on government for 80 per cent of their income. Mr Briscoe points out that increased funding for council services - education, housing, youth provision - would lead to much greater savings in some central government expenditure, such as prisons.

Reorganisation has seen the most bitter local government in-fighting that anyone can remember. "The issue is not finished," concedes Mr Briscoe. "There are still matters being negotiated and settled."

He urges any new national government not to rush into further structural review of local government. "My personal view would be that I hope we can concentrate on improving the quality of services, improving the culture of our public services and their delivery to the public, rather than throwing the structures up in the air again, because structural change in fact does not deliver very much, whereas cultural change delivers a lot."

Mr Briscoe argues that any move towards regional government should be achieved by taking powers away from the central state and its regional officials, not by removing existing responsibilities from councils. As part of his argument, Mr Briscoe asserts that local government is in reality far more democratic than central government, by being closer to the people, more responsive to criticism, and more willing to consult its electors. None the less, local government's involvement of local people must be further strengthened, he believes, with the aim of increasing turn-out in local elections.

Mr Briscoe knows that the new LGA must prove its worth quickly to its members, not all of whom were happy to lose their traditional system of representation. His first priority is simply to ensure that the LGA functions effectively, with staff working alongside each other, and members efficiently consulted.

But alongside that, Mr Briscoe's priority is to persuade the incoming government to operate in partnership with local authorities, giving it more powers and resources while interfering less. Ultimately, it is on his ability to influence central government's behaviour that he will be judged

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